Friday, December 24, 2010

The Gator Roll in Tampa, Florida

It's a Florida Thing...

Seriously, how about an Alligator Sushi Roll?

Unlike the Spider Roll, which only describes what the softshell crab inside resembles, the Gator Roll at Matoi Sushi in Tampa contains an actual tempura-fried alligator tail. What does it taste like? Well, like anything else that’s fried with lots of sauce on it—good.

As far as texture goes, it is a bit chewy, sort of a cross between the deep-fried rattlesnake tail they sell at the L.A. County Fair and your standard shrimp tempura.

At Matoi Sushi, most of the rolls are covered with similar toppings: avocado, eel sauce, the obligatory orange-hued spicy mayonnaise, and either seaweed salad or masago. The super-sweet Gator Roll, which is dressed to the hilt with condiments galore, tastes great but unless you knew there was a reptilian tail in every bite, it could just as easily pass for a calamari- or shrimp-based roll. It’s something you order for novelty’s sake. Besides which, most of the other Japanese menu items are pretty generic; Matoi Sushi, despite its name, actually specializes in Korean cuisine, featured on a separate menu.

Matoi Sushi
602 N. Dale Mabry Hwy
Tampa, Florida

BBQ Eel & Papaya Hand Roll, Grilled Portobello Mushroom & Cream Cheese Roll with Onion Salsa at Sushi Blues Cafe in Hollywood, Florida

Mixing Blues Music with Sushi

On Florida’s southern Atlantic Coast, the city of Hollywood is home to Sushi Blues Café, so named because of the fusion of Japanese cuisine and culture with American blues music. On weekend nights, a live band called Bluesman Spencer performs, and a Japanese drum show is featured once a month.

But it’s more than the music that makes patrons want to dance—the food here hardly gives you the blues. Although I’ve seen the integration of fruit with sushi many a time, this is the only restaurant that I’ve seen combining barbecued eel with papaya in a hand roll; it’s also the only place I’ve seen mixing grilled portobello mushroom, scallions and cream cheese in a cut roll topped with red onion salsa, both unique and delightful concoctions.

Another selection that suggests the tropical tendencies of Floridian cooking: the Crunchy Coconut Crusted Telapia Salad with creamy pineapple salsa dressing. And of course, it wouldn’t be a true Sunshine State menu if there were no conch—so it makes it appearance in a Spicy Conch Salad with avocado cucumbers and melon.

Sushi Blues Café
2009 Harrison Street
Hollywood, Florida

The Smashing Tuna and The Cowboy Steak Roll at Sushi House in Orlando, Florida

Inside the Sushi House

While perhaps better known for its stone crab and king crab, the city of family-oriented entertainment does offer sushi for those who absolutely must have it. Conveniently located near the Florida Mall, there’s the Sushi House in Orlando, which serves unconventional dishes like the Smashing Tuna—chopped spicy tuna, green onions, tempura flakes and eel sauce served on fried tortilla chips (normally, fried wonton chips are used in this dish, so this is an interesting, and slightly crispier, difference). For another interesting twist, try the Cowboy Steak Roll, which has medium rare beef, cucumber, asparagus, cream cheese and teriyaki sauce.

Sushi House
1311 Florida Mall Avenue
Orlando, Florida

Friday, December 10, 2010

Benton's Bacon Roll and The Bagel Roll at One Flew South in Atlanta, Georgia

Bacon Sushi at "One Flew South" in Atlanta

It’s a well-known fact that most airports offer overpriced food that is not exactly spectacular in taste. So why not pay a little more for…well, more?

For those who can find the time to chow down between flights at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Georgia, there’s always the option of dining at One Flew South, a sleek and upscale restaurant located next to the food court at Concourse E. Amid the lineup of stagnant food brands such as the ever-ubiquitous McDonald’s and the generic Panda Express, One Flew South stands out like an oasis (although at the nearby Nature’s Table Bistro, the fresh Georgia peach juice is apropos and highly recommended).

One Flew South may specialize in mostly hot food, but the restaurant happens to boast a sushi bar with a number of amazing cut rolls ranging from $10 to $16. One noteworthy detail in most of the rolls is that only English cucumbers are used. (As opposed to many other varieties of cucumber, the English version tends to be less bitter, with a skin that is generally not as hard and thick.)

I ordered the $12 Bagel Roll, which comes with smoked salmon, Greek yogurt sauce, and English cucumber. Using a lemon zester, the roll is then topped off with citrus shavings, which are commonly used on many of the rolls in place of sesame seeds.

Per the chef’s recommendation, I agreed to try the Benton’s Roll, which isn’t on the menu but as with most items that are “off the menu,” it was a special dish that was mind-blowingly good, although a sushi roll with bacon and avocado does sound wacky.

But this is no ordinary bacon. It comes from Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams, the famous purveyor of hickory, smoked, and aged pork products in Madisonville, Tennessee. Its deeply rich and pungent essence is further enhanced by the restaurant’s in-house seasoning and caramelization process using brown and white sugar, salt, and fresh cracked pepper. Above all, it’s finished in the oven, which gives the bacon its extra crispness.

This bacon can also be found in the restaurant’s Bacon and Sweetgrass Dairy Chevre (goat milk cheese) Salad. Want to try a hot plate the restaurant recommends? Order the Duck Breast with Sweet Potato Puree, Brussels Sprouts and Blueberry Reduction.

One Flew South
Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport
Atlanta, Georgia

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Belt Fish Pressed Sushi, Turnip Sushi & King Crab Tempura at Yutaka Sushi Bistro in Dallas

Sushi in Texas

Let us debunk the myth that great sushi couldn’t possibly be found in such a rough-hewn and raw state as Texas. As discovered in cities like Dallas and Fort Worth, the Lone Star State can be full of surprises when it comes to producing culturally advanced and increasingly popular eateries—proof of a refined palate, a burgeoning ethnic restaurant scene.

One of the best Japanese restaurants is Yutaka Sushi Bistro in uptown Dallas. With exotic fish and vegetables served as sushi—from Tachiuo (belt fish) pressed sushi to crispy and sour Kabu (Japanese turnip) served nigiri-style—Yutaka’s offerings are rare and delicious.

It’s not just about the sushi at Yutaka. The menu here is also divided among the hot dishes, cold dishes, and specialty tempura, the latter of which boasts a memorable fried king crab with jalapeno vinaigrette, tossed with onions and shishito peppers.

Specialty Dishes at Yutaka in Dallas

Kobe Beef, Hot or Cold?

The most succulent Kobe beef is served either smoldering ishiyaki-style in a hot stone bowl or seared and spread around a cool center of greens.

For a refreshing and healthful appetizer, there’s always the Heirloom Tomato Salad, which combines cucumber slices, mint leaves and tangy, fermented miso. The artistically arranged salad is then dressed in what appears to be balsamic vinegar and oil, and pink peppercorns are tossed in.

A personal favorite? The Flounder Chips with avocado, green onions, masago, and spicy mayonnaise spread across them. The chefs display these (sans sauce) atop the sushi bar in a tray; unless someone orders some, the funny-looking crisps only pique curiosity and don’t get topped with the green-colored mix. The fishy chips are as crunchy as tortilla chips, and the topping is spicy and creamy, a perfect pairing.

Yutaka Sushi Bistro
2633 McKinney Avenue, Dallas

Hot Rock & Hawaiian Roll at Kenichi in Dallas

Kenichi Restaurant & Lounge

In Dallas’ downtown district, adjacent to the W Hotel, Kenichi is another trendy hotspot not to be passed up.

Also using the concept of ishiyaki, or the ancient Japanese method of cooking food on a hot stone, Kenichi offers a 12-piece Chef’s Selection of raw meats and mushrooms you can sear on your own with a round rock that has been heated at 1,000 degrees. Bite-sized portions of Akaushi “kobe style” meat, scallop, escolar and shiitake are served with three accompanying seasonings: ponzu sauce, smoked paprika salt, and pink peppercorn sesame salt.

Although the style and presentation were immaculate, the stone could have been bigger considering there were 12 pieces to be cooked, and perhaps there should have been a sliver of butter provided so that the food didn’t stick to the cooking surface (toward the end of the sizzling session, my rock had dwindled in heat and I had to request a second one).

The Jumbo Lump Blue Fin Crab Cake, served with yellow curry-lime and Thai basil emulsions, was a wonderful alternative to having just sushi and sashimi at the bar, although the Hawaiian Roll with blackened yellowtail, pineapple, asparagus, Serrano peppers and soy paper was impressive.

2400 Victory Park Lane, Dallas

Tuscany Roll, Strawberry Roll & Cayman Roll at Sushi Zushi in Dallas

Over-the-top Sushi Rolls

Meanwhile, some of the zaniest rolls can be found at Sushi Zushi, located inside Dallas’ Turtle Creek Shopping Center. The Tuscany Roll, which unexpectedly mixes sun-dried tomatoes, takuan pickles and cream cheese, is a roll that doesn’t know what it’s trying to be, but it doesn’t taste bad; it is at once sour and sweet, chewy and crunchy.

For a fruity, really sweet twist, there’s always the Strawberry Roll, which has shrimp tempura and masago inside and is colorfully layered with tuna, avocado and strawberry slices on the outside. Kiwi Sauce and Las Vegas Sauce drizzle this eight-piece roll (I learned the kiwi sauce here was actually a kiwi-lime dessert syrup; the Las Vegas Sauce was what they called their spicy mayonnaise).

The Cayman Roll, also over-the-top with its ingredients of imitation crab, habanero-marinated tobiko, seaweed salad, cream cheese, pickled and fresh jalapenos, and honey wasabi sauce, makes your mouth feel as though it’s been stung by the very bee that made the honey in the sauce—it’s a spicy one, all right.

Sushi Zushi
3858 Oak Lawn Avenue, Dallas

Sexy Roll & Conch Sushi at Piranha Killer Sushi in Fort Worth

Killer Sushi

With its lethal-sounding name and sharply recognizable logo, Piranha Killer Sushi must make a killing in Downtown Fort Worth, which is just one of its four locations throughout the state. The central joint grows vibrant nightly with tourists, college kids and those just out on the town with its hip ambience and vast martini menu (Cowboytini and 5th Amendment are just two of the tempters on the list).

The “Piranha Signature Rolls” range from the Southwest Roll (Chipotle pesto over a California Roll) to Vietnamese Summer Roll (salmon, tuna, crab, tomatoes, mango, asparagus and other greens wrapped with rice paper). The Sexy Roll is just a bit more insidious than it sounds, since the unanticipated seasonings of cajun powder and chili sauce are so spicy they make you kick up your spurs, but overall the flavors enhance the load of shrimp tempura, crawfish, avocado, mango bits and ginger cream.

Although reminiscent of Florida, where the mollusks abound, the conch sushi here actually hails from Washington. Although fresh as can be, after one bite of the rubbery thing I was wondering what it is that makes me want to order any conch anywhere, and then I remember: I am a tourist from Los Angeles who craves the rarities.

Piranha Killer Sushi
335 W. 3rd Street, Fort Worth

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Hara Maki and Sweet Shrimp Sashimi at Osaka Japanese Restaurant in Valencia, Spain

Osaka Japanese Restaurant of Valencia, Spain

I didn't go into Spain expecting much of the sushi; therefore, I wasn't disappointed. Inbetween bites of oil-saturated, overly salted tapas and tastings of the more sophisticated variety (I'm talking gazpachos, fish egg-laden baguettes and violet-flavored ice cream), I still somehow found the time to duck into the occasional Japanese dive.

While European sushi never did impress me much in general (I find most of it rather bland in taste and lacking in authenticity), I always found it amusing to read menus in different languages, from French to Danish to Dutch. In Spain, eel is written as anguille and spicy tuna is referred to as atun picante.

In the city of Valencia, the Japanese restaurant of Osaka serves a roll known as Hara Maki, which the menu defines as "California Roll and masago." The four-piece order which costs almost 9 Euros contains a stick of imitation crab (the cheap, flavorless variety), cucumber and avocado, but the additional ingredients of tuna, salmon and oshinko are a nice surprise, and the masago turns out to be wasabi tobiko. Although not bursting with flavor, by European standards it is at least decent.

What made me miss Los Angeles sushi, however, was the fact that the 10-piece sweet shrimp sashimi that Osaka served, while highly quantitative for the price of 8 Euros, was low in quality as far as taste, freshness and sizethese were nothing like the large ama ebi I knew from back home, whose bodies are served as sushi and big heads are fried to a crisp and then presented separately as a crunchy snack with ponzu sauce.

C/. Ribera, n 8
46002 Valencia, Spain

Planet Sushi's "B.For" Restaurant in Ibiza

The Sushi of Ibiza

The Balearic island of Ibiza, renowned for its wild nightlife and beautiful beaches, is also home to a certain trendy sushi-lounge known as "B.For," by the company Planet Sushi which also manages locations in Paris and Milan (it makes you wonder why they didn't just name the restaurant Planet Sushi). Patrons of "B.For" are surprisingly more image-conscious and well-dressed than even the party-goers down the street at Pacha, one of the island's more famous nightclubs. Perhaps it's because of the architectural splendor (the better part of the restaurant is on a terrace), or the electronica music that plays in the background and the club-like lighting and atmosphere. "B. For" also delivers ordersto your home or boat (this is an island, after all).

The picture menu in their multi-page pamphlet may have lured me to the restaurant, but the turnout on the table didn't quite measure up. The "Green Ebi Fry" roll (with shrimp tempura, avocado and cucumber) would have tasted much plainer had it not been for its outer coating of dill and green onions, but that didn't mean the roll was enhanced by the green stuff.

"Dill doesn't really go with fried shrimp," my travel companion stated, and she was right. Nor did it go with the cigarette smoke billowing over from the next table, helped by the wind since we were dining al fresco in Europe.

The Big Egg Chicken Katsu Roll we ordered came sheathed in a thin wrap of omelet (which I at first thought was yellow soy paper) and drizzled with what seemed like eel sauce and a spicy aioli. It looked nothing like the photo, and although it wasn't bad that they had substituted cream cheese for red bell peppers, it was just too much sweetness on too bland a base, although the crunchy chicken inside made the roll less gooey. This maki cost nearly 12 Euros, but we figured it was worth trying.

The "Red Slim Prawn Spicy" Roll (about 10 Euros) might have been better without the same sauces that were used on the Chicken Katsu Roll, but it really resembled more of a Vietnamese-style spring roll, since the wrap was neither seaweed nor soy paper (nor omelet), but translucent rice paper.

Finally, just to be funny, I ordered the nutella maki for dessert. Covered in coconut bits and chocolate sauce, it was hard to tell whether there really was any nutella at all in its center. But this may just be the best maki they serve.

B. For's service and hours here are very European: slow and relaxed; the place doesn't even open for dinner until 9 p.m. The water you ask for turns out to be expensive glass-bottled Evian.

b.for by Planet Sushi
Avenida 8 de Agosto
Edificios Los Girasoles 2
S/N 1 07800 Ibiza - Islas Baleares
+34 971 316 797

Galante Roll in Seville & Octopus Roll in Madrid

Sushi of Seville and Madrid

Seville's take on Japanese cuisine was a bit more interesting and savory. The restaurant JAPO, which surprisingly charges as much as 14 Euros for a Caterpillar Roll (most of Seville is considerably cheaper than touristy cities such as Barcelona and the pricey island of Ibiza), boasts a hip menu with imaginative combinations.

Although the Caterpillar sounded intriguing with its ingredients of eel, apple, crab roe, cheese and eel sauce, I opted for the Galante Roll, which contains salmon tempura, mango, cream cheese, king prawn and chives (the chives turned out to be green onions; perhaps they ran out of chives?). Overall, this was probably the best-tasting maki I had in Spain, and I know it had something to do with the rice being seasoned properly at this restaurant.

In Madrid, you can get just about any kind of food from the Mercado de San Miguelfrom deep-fried stuffed mussels still on the shell to egg-and-anchovies-covered baguettes. And then of course there's the "Sushimarket" section with ready-to-go boxes of rolls. Next to cases of what appeared to be California and Philadelphia maki was the odd one out: a roll covered with seaweed salad mixed with chopped octopus and topped with citrine-colored tobiko. This one was unexpectedly potent, for the sauce had obviously been pre-mixed with wasabi. Inside the roll? Avocado. A nice hidden filler that softened the wasabi's sting, anywy.

When in Spain, go for the unusual Spanish food, not just the tapas--but try the Japanese restaurants. Just for fun. And don't expect much.

c/Alvarez Quintero
45-41004 Sevilla, Spain
+34 954 56 0000

Mercado de San Miguel
Madrid, Spain

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Signature Dishes at Sushi Yuzu of Toluca Lake

Sushi Yuzu of Toluca Lake

Arranging the white, almost petal-thin pieces of octopus on a plate as though it were a floral arrangement, chef Gen Kimura wears an expression of intense concentration as he applies the next garnishes: shredded daikon radish, a twisted wedge of lemon, a mound of slick black seaweed salad, a medallion of beet. Finally, a single green mint leaf is tucked to one side, and the work of art is almost complete. You can tell Kimura loves working with his hands and perfecting every detail: using his fingers, he smears on the green citrus ingredient after which he named his restaurant, followed by a dusting of freshly grated pink rock salt from Japan and few dabs of plum sauce. And there you have it: the Nama Tako-Ashior, just call it an octopus sashimi with the works.

This is Sushi Yuzu...located in Toluca Lake, a comely little neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley between Burbank and North Hollywood. The menu changes daily, but the favorites are always on the listsuch as the wildly popular Spicy Chilean Sea Bass Hand Roll, and the much-praised Lemon Roll, which combines spicy tuna with lemon slices (rind inclusive, for added flavor) and pine nuts (hint: Kimura brought this one over from Kushiyu of Tarzana, where he worked as a chef for many years. Kimura says he and a partner invented this brilliant concoction).

Originally from Japan, Kimura opened Sushi Yuzu a little over two years ago, naming the restaurant after one of his favorite ingredients. It is certainly used liberally in many dishes, along with the purplish plum sauce, pink salt, and the magical brownish-red sweet paste (containing a mixture of Japanese chili, oyster sauce, sesame oil and Korean miso) which is used in the Sea Bass hand roll.

Kusshi Oyster on the Half Shell may seem steep at $9 for three small bites, but it is some of the freshest shellfish you will ever experience. This is one of the specials that may do a disappearing act from the menu, as it is not always available.

Another elusive dish that's not to be missed: Aji-Tataki, which is served nigiri-style, except the fish isn't just sliced fish, but a colorful mosaic of chopped Spanish mackerel, diced shibazuke, green onions, shiso, and sweet kelp. Plum sauce, miso sauce and sesame seeds finish it off just right. It's Heavenand you need not be a fan of mackerel to enjoy it.

Although the L-shaped sushi bar seats as many as 11, the restaurant is tiny overall, with parking that is painfully scarce and cramped. Only four parking spaces are reserved for Sushi Yuzu, and there is a sign above the other spaces that literally reads "Don't Even Think of Parking Here." You balk, but then you realize that if you've arrived after the business hours during which these spaces are reserved for the neighbors of the complex, you're safe.

If you're ingratiating enough, Kimura may just decide to sweeten your feast with a dessert ofwhat else?yuzu sorbet. With a mint leaf on top, of course.

Sushi Yuzu
10118 Riverside Dr., Toluca Lake

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Roy's Restaurant Debuts L.A. Ohana Tour

Eat at Roy's

What’s better than eating top-grade sushi at a world-renowned fine dining establishment? Having the chance to win a free trip to Hawaii just for doing so.

This summer, Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion restaurant introduces the L.A. Ohana Tour, a rewards program that enters diners into a drawing for an all-expense-paid trip to the Big Island after visiting at least three of the five Roy’s locations in the Southern California area, including Woodland Hills, Pasadena, Downtown L.A., Anaheim and Newport Beach. The promotion continues through the 31st of August, when one lucky winner will be announced. The prize is round-trip airfare and a five-night stay at a luxury villa for two, as well as a special dinner with founding chef Roy Yamaguchi.

The purpose of the tour is to encourage diners to partake of the unique chef creations at different Roy’s locations and revel in the aloha spirit with friends and family—hence the word Ohana, which means “family” in Hawaiian culture.

After the first restaurant visit, diners will receive an L.A. Ohana Tour card, which they can bring to a second Roy’s location to redeem a complimentary chocolate souffle (with the purchase of an entrée). A different card is then handed out, which can be turned in for a $20 gift card at the third Roy’s location, whereupon diners are entered into the sweepstakes.

Some of Roy’s most noteworthy creations include the Lakanilau, a roll of Wagyu beef, snow crab, tempura asparagus, avocado, sesame miso and truffled greens, for $16.50. This roll delights with the distinct pungence of truffle oil—an ingredient that also notably agrees with the Hawaiian Big Eye Ahi Tartar, a signature appetizer combining pine nuts, garlic chipotle aioli, and “honey dashi drizzle.” Then there is the ever-popular, eye-pleasing presentation of Sunrise at Haleakala, a crunchy deep-fried roll that encases tuna, yellowtail, salmon, avocado and asparagus in a “spicy butter sauce,” for $13.50.

Although the menus are ever-changing and often based on seasons (for instance, right now there is a “Summer Fusion Prix Fixe Menu”), in the past the Newport Beach location served up an amazing roll called “Da Crunch”—the shrimp tempura and snow crab in the roll were perfectly accented with toasted Macadamian nuts and Malaysian curry aioli. And who could forget the Yellowtail Sashimi served with slices of avocado, grapefruit, and a beautiful flower garnish?

Reminding you that this is a fusion restaurant, the L.A. location currently features the exotic Grilled Albacore Flatbread, which hints at Mediterranean flavors with its pickled red onions, smoked feta and Tzatziki sauce (defined as a yogurt and cucumber dip).

Just by eating at Roy’s, you’re already a winner.

Roy’s has more than 30 locations around the world—25 in the continental U.S., six in Hawaii, one in Japan and one in Guam. Selections on the menu may vary in each restaurant.

800 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Ahi Sushi of Santa Barbara

Getting Saucy at Ahi Sushi

This summer, why not take a scenic drive along the coast to Santa Barbara, if only to experience one of the best sushi restaurants this side of the country has to offer?

Ahi Sushi starts as familiar as any customary Japanese restaurant—you park your car in a small lot and then enter a smaller, nondescript dive; you’re greeted by the host, and after being seated at the sushi bar, you’re handed the dish of wasabi and ginger, and your drink is served. But then comes the menu, and you’re blown away.

The zany names aren’t the big deal; many sushi restaurants come up with funky-sounding titles that entertain as well as entice, but some of the listed ingredients that follow the names of each roll are anything but ordinary.

The Ahi Roll, for example, mixes fresh fish with mango and chives and a “cucumber/wasabi vinaigrette sauce.” In some of the other rolls you may find sesame sauce, carpaccio sauce, citrus herb vinaigrette, dijon vinaigrette and chive oil, or house chipotle sauce. Spicy aioli, overall, reigned as the most popular sauce on the menu.

Behind the bar, two busybody chefs scurry about, fetching and using the 15 or so differently colored sauces in squeeze-bottles, as they prepare one artistic dish after another for the patrons that begin to pack the tiny joint. Although it’s also a matter of having fresh fish and top-quality ingredients, it’s all the sauces here that make the grade—with the help of a searing torch that brings out the aroma of it all, ensuring that the essence of good gastronomy fills the dining room.

Ahi’s signature lobster roll is called “South Beach Grill.” Portabello mushroom, red bell pepper, eggplant, asparagus and garlic agree harmoniously with chunks of grilled lobster in this roll, which is then sprayed with white truffle oil by the chef using a small mist-bottle (no kidding). Finally, a spicy tomato soy sauce is added on the side. At $12.95, this dish puts to shame some of the far less tasty lobster rolls served at many upscale Japanese restaurants, some of which charge almost double the price.

Just when you think the South Beach Grill can’t be topped, along comes the Sunny Southern—this one has snow crab, jalapeno, cucumber and avocado, but it’s the sundried tomato oil and spicy aioli that do the trick…and it’s seared. The sundried tomato oil runs alongside the roll, but the spicy aioli sits on top of it with the snow crab and gets burned in, ensuring that the two flavors melt and merge together in creamy perfection.

The single snag in an otherwise perfect performance: the chef did not impart that the ususual sauce of papaya aioli, which according to the menu is served with the “Ono Ono” roll, was unavailable today; he simply substituted regular spicy aioli in the dish next to the green jalapeno sauce. But otherwise, the Ono Ono, with its tempura crab leg, avocado, cucumber and seared blackened salmon with cajun powder was pure bliss.

Ahi Sushi
3631 State St., Santa Barbara

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sweet Sushi at SASABUNE

A Matter of Trust at Sasabune

It’s another “Trust Me” menu.

By now I’ve figured out that in a sushi bar, these two words are code for omakase, which means chef’s choice. No choice by you, in other words, as far as what you eat. Sushi Nozawa of Studio City employs this command of faith, this motto; Nozawa’s menu alone bears nothing but the two words Trust Me.

Sasabune of Los Angeles is a bit more lenient: only the sushi bar is strictly reserved for omakase-style, but you can order what you want if you sit at a table—as long as it’s a minimum of four orders per person.

Right as you walk in, you see a sign at the register that forbids the Americanized staples. “NO California Roll, NO Spicy Tuna Roll, NO Teriyaki/Tempura…Seriously!” Consider yourself forewarned.

At the bar, there are two types of omakase to choose from: regular, at $65 per person, with 13 different types of sushi, maki and sashimi served; or Japanese style, $95 per person, with 17 types. Some of the sushi served between the two types of omakase overlap (for example, both styles serve tuna, yellowtail, halibut, salmon and butterfish); but the Japanese style offers rarities such as sweet shrimp, jumbo clam, sea urchin and abalone.

Normally I don’t handle restrictions in any restaurant very well; after all, I am the patron, and isn’t the customer always right? Or is that the Americanized way of thinking? Although I usually rack up more than $15 or $20 total on my sushi bill, I still hesitate when I see the occasional sign behind the sushi bar that dictates “$15 minimum per person at sushi bar.” What if it’s my first time there and I don’t know if the rice is seasoned to perfection? Once in a while, I simply request the check after a single order if something is not up to par. This may just cause discord among the staff should my order at that point be less than the predetermined minimum.

But fair is fair, and I give every restaurant a chance to impress me—Chef Nozawa, after all, did do just that, with his freshness of fish and integrity of sushi rice, heavy restrictions notwithstanding. And so I sat at a table and ordered my four minimum, happy to do the choosing and grateful that the sushi and maki dishes I wanted ranged from $5 to $6. (The most expensive sushi items appeared to be the chilled toro, which costs $10, and sea urchin, $12. At the bottom of the menu, various sashimi are labeled “Market Price.” In the mood for baby tuna sashimi? It’s $18).

Sasabune, which means bamboo leaf boat in Japanese and is pronounced sa-sa-boon-nay, may claim to only serve “traditional style sushi,” but I must say there are modern twists which surprised me. Most of the sushi I ordered, for example, were unexpectedly but pleasantly cooked. Butterfish, which I have only seen served raw, came browned and eel-sauced, unagi-like and served gunkan-style (sitting on seaweed-wrapped battleships of sushi rice), with sesame seeds sprinkled on top.

The monk fish liver was warm and soft, as opposed to the usual cold, pate-like variety. According to the owner, his restaurant doesn’t serve it out of the refrigerator like most sushi bars do; at Sasabune, the ankimo is boiled, baked, and then brushed with miso sauce.

Very few sushi bars carry these: clear strips of kombu, a type of kelp, often draped across the top of a piece of fish for taste and decoration. At Sasabune, the salmon nigiri comes with kombu, which enhances the flavor of the fish. The scallop was extremely fresh, and was probably the only thing I ended up with that wasn’t cooked. But the most exquisite signature item has got to be the blue crab roll. Served as a perfectly cylindrical (as opposed to cone-shaped) hand roll, the blue crab is pure seafood essence—it just doesn’t get fresher or creamier than this.

It’s no surprise that Sasabune has its legions of devout followers—those who discovered it after this location opened four and a half years ago, and those who have been avid fans since the very beginning, back when the restaurant was on Sawtelle Boulevard (the old location has been taken over by Bar Hayama).

Sasabune reminds me of Hiko Sushi of Los Angeles and Sushi Park of West Hollywood, with similarities in menus, policies and presentation styles. Both of them are traditional Japanese restaurants, with omakase-only sushi bars and arbitrary table orders—as long as it’s (you guessed it) a four-dish minimum.

You will love Sasabune…Trust Me.

12400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles